We live in an era of significant change to Auckland’s transport system – although not as much as it should be. While daily frustrations about a lack of progress are never-ending, when we zoom out it’s clear that amazing progress has been made over the past 20 years to improve public transport and (more recently) cycling. We still have a very long way to go, but it’s important to recognise that we have also come a long way since the 1990s. We are living through a transport revolution of sorts, where Auckland transforms from a highly car dependent overgrown town into a proper multi-modal metropolitan city.
This is not Auckland’s first transport revolution. It is also a much more gentle, people-led revolution compared to our previous one – which mainly occurred over a 20 year period after the end of World War II. Back then Auckland had an extensive tram network and one of the highest levels of public transport use in the world:
In the late 1940s the Ministry of Works produced a reasonably balanced transport vision for Auckland – a mixture of new motorways around the edge of the city and railway lines to serve the centre. This is shown in the map below, which notably includes the Morningside Deviation, a precursor to the City Rail Link:
The recently completed Western Ring Route was, in this plan, the main way through Auckland – with the focus being on having highways largely bypass the city centre, which would instead be served by the rail network including a new underground link that we are just getting around to building now.
However, not too many years later this plan was replaced by probably the most influential planning document ever created in Auckland – the notorious 1955 Master Transportation Plan. This plan had a pretty complex gestation, but what’s probably the most important thing to note is how the shift from a multi-modal approach to transport planning to one that focused
almost exclusively on roads was predominantly pushed by ‘behind the scenes’ officials and engineers, rather than by the public or the politicians they elect.
The 1955 Plan used imagery very effectively, to contrast congestion seemingly caused by Auckland’s tram system against the free-flowing motorways that US cities had started to build.
The roading network proposed in this Plan became the blueprint for many decades of motorways to come. This was largely based on the assumption that most future travel would be on the roads and that simply not enough people would use the rail network to justify investment in it. Of course this became a self-fulfilling prophecy as the rail system was left to decline for the next 50 years while a modern motorway network was built. It was the genesis of the ‘motorway noose’ that now surround’s Auckland’s city centre – which is also said to have been about encouraging enough people to use the Harbour Bridge to pay the tolls:
Fortunately the Dominion Road motorway (other than the New North Rd interchange and parts of Ian McKinnon Dr), the Eastern Motorway and the Quay Street elevated motorway were never built, but most of the rest of the motorway system proposed in this plan has ended up being built.
Many of the impacts from building these new motorways were laughably under-estimated by the plan. For example the property impacts of driving motorways through the inner suburbs have turned out to be quite a lot more severe than what was shown in these plans.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the rail spur proposed as a cheaper option to the Morningside Deviation (basically the only rail investment proposed in the plan) was never built.
The map is a little bit tricky to read, but effectively the line would have extended in a spur from the old Auckland Railway Station, underneath Albert Park and then with an underground station beneath a bit of Albert Park with the main entrance being basically underneath where the Victoria Street carpark is now located.
Somewhat infamously, future mayor and rail advocate Sir Dove-Myer Robinson actually moved the resolution for the plan to be passed, which apparently haunted him for decades to come. After its approval, implementation commenced quickly and Auckland’s motorway network grew rapidly from the mid-1950s onwards. In fact, not too many years later another plan, prepared by the American firm De Leuw Cather, was prepared that included even more motorways:
Critically, De Leuw Cather produced a second report saying how essential it was to complement these road improvements with high quality rapid transit. In fact they made it really clear how important high quality rapid transit was to having a successful integrated transport system.
The system they proposed was quite extensive and would have seen the modernisation of Auckland’s rail network decades before it finally happened.
Again only the motorway parts of these plans were ever progressed during the second half of the 20th century. This led to an explosion of the use of private vehicles and correspondingly public transport use plummeted – aside from a period during the 1970s and 1980s when oil crises and rapid inflation pushed up fuel prices and people got back on the bus. Public transport use wouldn’t bottom out until the mid-1990s.
Now it’s unlikely that Auckland would have completely escaped the automobile age, especially during the late 20th century when petrol was cheap, roads were empty and climate change was barely thought of. But it does seem likely that Auckland could have had a less extreme transport revolution in the 1950s. Perhaps one where some of the tram routes were retained, like Melbourne and Toronto managed. Or one where rail networks were modernised, like happened in most Australian cities as well as even numerous American cities (Washington DC, Atlanta & San Francisco all built major transit systems). Perhaps Auckland could have routed its motorways away from the city – like was originally planned in the late 1940s.
Sadly none of that happened, which means that for all the progress we have made over the past decade or so, much has simply been ‘catching up’. Auckland’s previous transport revolution casts a long shadow on us all.